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What are some everyday things that are hard to believe? 2020 is almost over. Airplanes full of baggage and people, weighing thousands of pounds, actually fly. King Agur mentioned these examples in Proverbs 30, things that were amazing, things that were difficult for him to believe, the way of an eagle in the sky, the way of a snake on a rock, the way of a ship on the high seas. These are just a few things that we witness everyday that seem unbelievable, but they happen. And that’s just in the physical realm. We could list even more things that are hard to believe that occur in the spiritual realm. But, like the things in the physical realm, just because they are hard to believe, or because we can’t understand how they could happen, they still do happen. They are true. They happen whether we believe it or not.
The writer to the Hebrews defines faith as being sure of what we hope for and certain of what we don’t see. He gives us all kinds of examples of people who believed, people who trusted that what God promised was true, that what he said would happen really would happen, even when what God told them seemed unbelievable. Mary is truly an example of one of those people.
We get a hint of the strength of Mary’s faith from her reaction to the appearance of Gabriel. We are told that the thing that troubled her most was not that an angel had suddenly appeared and was talking to her. When angels appeared to the Shepherds – Children you can say it with me – they were terrified! But we are told that Mary was troubled by what Gabriel said to her and was wondering what kind of greeting this could be. Why would this heavenly visitor say that she was highly favored! That she was blessed among women? She was greatly troubled by his statement, not his appearance. That’s the first sign of her humble faith.
Why would God choose me? Why would he grant me his grace and favor? That should also be our attitude. That God would choose us to be his own, that God would show us his grace and favor, should always be something that we find hard to believe. We know the dark secrets that live in our hearts. We know how many times we have disobeyed God. We know how many times we have failed to trust him, how many times we have been overcome with doubt and worry. Humble faith always reacts to the announcement that God has chosen us to be his and shown us his grace and favor by thinking, “but I’m not worthy.” And then humble faith says, no matter how unbelievable it seems, no matter how much I don’t deserve it, thank God it’s true!
If Mary found it hard to believe that she was highly favored and blessed – well, that was nothing compared to what the angel had really come to tell her. Listen, you will conceive and give birth to a son, and you are to name him Jesus. He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High. The Lord God will give him the throne of his father David. He will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and his kingdom will never end.
Mary understood what the angel was saying. She knew what God had told David a thousand years earlier, the prophecy we heard in our Old Testament reading. God had promised David, your house will stand firm, and your kingdom will endure forever before you. Your throne will be established forever. She knew that the Messiah, the Savior, would be from the line of David. Through the Messiah, who would be a physical descendant of David, but also the Son of the Most High, David’s kingdom would never end. She knew that the angel was talking about the Messiah, but there was something she didn’t know, something she didn’t understand. How would it be possible for her son to also be God’s son? In fact, how would she even have a son since she was not married and was still a virgin?
Still today this is something that’s hard to believe. Not only is God triune, one divine being yet three distinct persons, but the one we call the second person of the trinity came to earth and took on flesh and blood, body and spirit so that he is both God and man at the same time. There is no way that we can fully grasp this with our minds. There is nothing that exists that compares to it. It seems unbelievable. With Mary we say, “how can this be?” But just because something seems unbelievable, or beyond our understanding, doesn’t mean it isn’t so.
Mary, in humble faith, was not doubting what the angel told her. She was asking how what he said would happen, would actually happen. Was there something she needed to do? Would this happen after she married Joseph. Would this son be one of their children?
The angel answered her, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you. So the holy one to be born will be called the Son of God.
Mary got her answer. There was nothing she needed to do. She didn’t need to be married first. She would remain a virgin. God would use his almighty power to cause a child to be conceived in her. Her son would not have a human father. His father would be God so that he would truly be both Mary’s son and the Son of God.
How could anyone believe such a thing? How can we be expected to believe such a thing? The angel helps us. He gives Mary and us another example of a miraculous birth. Listen, Elizbeth, your relative, has also conceived a son in her old age even through she was called barren, and this is her sixth month. For nothing will be impossible for God. In fact, I like a more literal translation of the end of that verse. Not a single word of God is without power. If God says something will happen, no matter how unbelievable it may seem, it will happen. Remember, he is the one who said, “let there be light,” and there was light.
The words of the angel about the pregnancy of Elizabeth may have reminded Mary of quite a history of miraculous births. Many others are mentioned in Scripture. The most notable would be that of Isaac, who was given that name because Sarah laughed when she heard God tell Abraham that by that time next year he and Sarah, who had never been able to have children and were now physically unable to have children, would have a son. And she laughed again, this time with joy, when the word of the Lord was fulfilled, and Isaac was born just as God had promised. Nothing will be impossible for God. Not a single word of God will ever fail. God is not a man, that he should lie, nor a son of man, that he should change his mind. Does he speak and then not act? Does he promise and not fulfil?
Think of all the unbelievable things that have happened by the power of God’s word. Everything that exists came into being by the power of his word. The ten plagues in Egypt happened by the power of his word. The Red Sea was divided by the power of his word. The walls of Jericho came crashing down. Jesus healed every sickness and disease, cast out demons, calmed the storm, and raised the dead all by the power of his word. And, as John says, if everything that was done by the power of God’s word were recorded, there wouldn’t be room in the world for all the books.
What does this mean? Why did the angel mention what was happening in the life of Elizabeth? It means that our faith is not blind faith. We are not just hoping with no reason, no foundation for the hope except that we want it to happen. We have overwhelming evidence that nothing is impossible with God, that not a single promise he made will fail. That’s why the Apostle Paul told the Corinthians, if you don’t believe that Jesus died and rose from the dead, go talk to the over 500 eyewitnesses. Our faith has a firm foundation. God has proven himself over and over and over again. That’s one of the things we celebrate during Advent and Christmas. We look at the prophecies about the Messiah, made over thousands of years and we see them wonderfully fulfilled– Jesus, a descendant of Abraham, of the line of David, born of a virgin, born in Bethlehem. We look at prophecies that seemed unbelievable, who ever heard of a virgin giving birth? And yet we see the unbelievable happen. We see the word of God, no matter how unbelievable it seemed when it was first spoken, perfectly fulfilled.
Think of the words that God has spoken to you. He says to you, “I chose you to be mine even before you were born. I claimed you as my dear child when I put my name on you at your baptism. I made sure that you continued to hear my life-giving word and I gave you the supper to assure you that I am present, that your sins are forgiven. Through the word and sacrament my Spirit works to strengthen your faith and keep you in the faith. As you consider these things you can be sure that I will also keep my promise to come again, to raise all the dead and to take you and all who believe that Jesus was born of a virgin, that he is the God/Man who lived perfectly in your place, died to pay for every sin, and rose again on the third day- I will take all who believe this to live and reign with me forever.
Our faith is not blind faith. It has the firm foundation of the word of God that never fails, the word of the one with whom nothing is impossible. When we realize this, when we realize that even though we are unworthy, God did what he promised– He sent his son to be our savior. Then we respond in faith as Mary did. I am the Lord’s servant. Not my will Lord, but your will be done in me and through me. We say with the father who was asked by Jesus if he believed his son could be healed, Lord, I believe, help me overcome my unbelief.
Lord grant us the humble faith of Mary. Help us believe what you promise, even when what you promise might seem to be unbelievable, because no promise you make can ever fail. Help us offer ourselves daily as your humble servants.